Mass Rescue Operations

Training, Exercises and Drills, and Learning from Experience

The International Maritime Rescue Federation Mass Rescue Operations Project:

MRO training


The IMRF’s mass rescue operations (MRO) guidance is provided in 30 separate chapters. For downloadable documents referenced in this chapter please use the drop-down menus or return to the MRO project main page under ‘MRO Library’. For a general introduction please see chapter 1, ‘Complex incident planning – the challenge: acknowledging the problem, and mass rescue incident types’.

This chapter discusses:

o the place of training in MRO preparations
o IMO’s guidance on SAR training, and MRO training in particular
o who should receive training and how much training they should receive
o the value of joint training

1 Training, Exercising, Learning

1.1 The guidance in this part (chapters 26-30) relates to training in MRO plans, exercising them, and learning lessons from incident and exercise experience. Chapters 28-30 refer to exercises, learning, and reporting. Chapter 27 introduces the IMRF’s MRO workshops, which can form an early part of the planning and training processes and which also form part of the process of sharing MRO lessons learned. This chapter deals with the training process more generally.

2 Plan, Train, Test, Review

2.1 A common theme in this guidance material has been that MROs should be planned for, and that key personnel identified in the plan should be trained for their roles. Both planning and training should be tested by exercises, and will be tested by real incidents: we discuss this in chapter 28. The results of the tests should then feed back into the process so that it can be improved: see chapters 29 & 30.

2.2 This process is illustrated below.

2.3 The planning part of the cycle is discussed in chapters 5-12. But planning alone is insufficient: people must be trained to various degrees in the implementation of the plan or it will not work. The adequacy of planning and training is then checked and the results, if properly acted upon, will lead to improvements in both planning and training – and the ‘hill’ of continuous improvement will be climbed!

2.4 Climbing a hill takes determination and effort. Training, like planning and exercising, only happens when organisations want it to happen. Training takes time and resources, both of which cost money.

2.5 It can be harder to justify this expenditure for MRO training when, almost by definition, MROs are rare events. But, as discussed in chapters 1 & 16, the justification is provided by the high-consequence nature of such events and the damage that will result if responders are not properly prepared. There may be a plan but if people are not trained in it appropriately it will fail. The consequences of failure for the response organisations and individuals concerned can be enormous – and for the people who are the subject of the MRO they can be fatal.

2.6 Training in MROs is therefore, we argue, essential. But, as discussed further below, it need not be daunting. Only a few individuals will need extensive training; for most a knowledge of their place in the plan will be sufficient. For some, all that is really needed is the knowledge that there is a plan and that the specific tasks they are given at the time will be part of a much larger overall response.

3 IMO Guidance

3.1 The IMO makes a great deal of guidance available on training, including SAR training. Most of the SAR training guidance is contained in the IAMSAR Manual. This is supported by IMO Model Courses in SAR administration, mission coordination and on-scene coordination and, for complex incidents in particular, by MSC Circular 1186: ‘Guidelines on the training of SAR service personnel working in major incidents’ (see below).

3.2 Volume I of the IAMSAR Manual contains extensive guidance in chapter 3, ‘Training, qualification, certification and exercises’, to which the reader is referred. In general, IAMSAR[1] notes that:

[1] Volume I Chapter 3.1.2 and 3.2.1.

“Since considerable experience and judgement are needed to handle typical SAR situations, necessary skills require significant time to master. Training can be expensive. Poor training is even more expensive and can result in poor operational effectiveness, which can result in loss of lives of SAR personnel, lives of those in distress and loss of valuable facilities. Quality of performance will match the quality of training. [...]

“All SAR specialists need training, in particular the SCs, RCC chiefs, SMCs, OSCs, ACOs and SRUs.

“Operational facilities which need training include RCCs and RSCs, aeronautical units, maritime units, land units [and] specialized units”[2]

[2] ‘SCs’: SAR Coordinators; ‘RCCs and RSCs’: Rescue Coordination Centres and Sub Centres; ‘SMCs’: SAR Mission Coordinators; ‘OSCs’: On Scene Coordinators; ‘ACOs’: Aircraft Coordinators; ‘SRUs’: designated SAR Units.

3.3 This is as regards training in general for SAR specialists and designated SAR units. Each of these individuals and their units should have appropriate MRO training in addition, as recommended in IAMSAR Volume II, Chapter 1.8.15. IAMSAR also notes that “awareness training is required for those persons infrequently involved in SAR[3].

[3] Volume I Chapter 3.2.17.

And attention is drawn to IAMSAR’s recommendation that senior personnel too require training. This is important, and sometimes overlooked. Seniority and long service alone do not guarantee capability! Whether through complacency or forgetfulness it is quite often senior people who make mistakes; sometimes more so than their less-experienced but more recently trained subordinates.

3.4 IAMSAR Volume II, Chapter 1.2.2, notes that the responsibility to coordinate the provision of this training falls to the SAR Coordinator (see chapter 18). It also comments on individual SAR service managers’ and staff training responsibilities at Chapter 1.8:

“The head of a SAR service is responsible for establishment of training programmes for SAR personnel to reach and maintain a high level of competence. The head of each facility is responsible for the training of personnel in the specialized techniques and procedures assigned to them, while each individual must assume responsibility to perform competently any assigned task.”

3.5 IAMSAR Volume III, the Mobile Facilities volume, provides guidance on training in Section 23, and notes as regards training for the masters of ships (usually a vital additional resource in an MRO) that:

“The mandatory minimum requirements for the training of masters of merchant ships in SAR operations are contained in the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers.”

4 Guidelines on the Training of SAR Service Personnel Working in Major Incidents

4.1 In MSC Circular 1186 the IMO provide further advice, focussing on complex incident response. This text notes that:

“Successful interaction and mutual understanding between those who will have to work closely together during a major emergency are of fundamental importance to its being handled successfully. The human element and relevant training for all who may be involved are key factors in this context.

“Major incidents are, fortunately, rare. However, they must be planned and prepared for, and this preparation includes an additional element of training. SAR service personnel are generally used to handling relatively small-scale incidents; but the rarity of major incidents means that they cannot gain the same levels of direct experience in dealing with emergencies on this scale. The need for specific training therefore increases commensurately.”

4.2 The Circular discusses what is meant by “SAR service personnel” and “major incidents” – of which MROs are an example – and the training needs that arise. It lists the following “fundamental concerns”:

the structure and synergy of the wider SAR team which, in a major incident, will include members who are not used to working together as part of the everyday response; 
the crucial importance of effective communications at all levels;[4]
  [4] See chapter 25.
the additional pressures placed on SAR service personnel during major incidents, and particularly in mass rescue operations; 
the usefulness of major emergency exercises and simulations; and 
the usefulness of familiarization visits and exchanges, and joint training initiatives.


4.3 Familiarisation visits and exchanges of personnel are recommended. If RCC staff, for example, do not have personal experience of ship operations, allowing them to gain relevant experience as part of their training will be very beneficial. Placing responders as observers in unfamiliar parts of the operation during an MRO exercise will better enable them to appreciate others’ roles, capabilities and limitations.

4.4 MSC Circular 1186 gives the following examples of subject areas to be considered in complex incident training, with a short discussion of the subject in each case:

recognising the scale of the incident
survival time
SAR facility availability
working with strangers
mutual awareness
coordination overall
on-scene coordination
information, and lack of information
language difficulties
planning and plans
recovery / retrieval of people in distress
counting those recovered
dealing with survivors
dealing with the injured
dealing with the dead
places of safety
news media interest
friends and families
politics’: who’s in charge?
training and exercising
lessons learned.


4.5 Most of these items are examined elsewhere in this guidance: see chapter 1 for an overview. MSC Circular 1186 is recommended reading.

5 Checklists

5.1 Training can be supported by the use of checklists, to help remind response personnel of their responsibilities and duties when an emergency occurs. Checklists have a useful function as memory aids, especially in high-pressure situations. But they need to be carefully written and carefully used. If you have an action checklist to work through, you can become bound to it. That is fine in some circumstances – operating machinery, for example – but it can be dangerously limiting when lateral thinking is required.

5.2 If writing checklists, phrase them as guidelines where appropriate, using phrases beginning ‘Think about…’ and ‘Don’t forget…’ Memory aids and guidelines are useful, but their users should be able to deviate from them intelligently and with confidence when the need arises. Implicit in this flexible approach are good selection and good training of people for key positions.

6 Who Should Receive MRO Training, and How Much?

6.1 In chapter 1 we listed those who will be involved generally in an MRO, and in chapter 5 those who should be involved in MRO planning. A similar list applies when it comes to training. Naturally, in addition to the students listed, expert trainers will also be required.

6.2 The following individuals should be given at least some MRO training, with an indication of its extent in each case:

o The SAR COORDINATOR (see chapter 18). So as to be able to coordinate the preparations for an MRO, the SAR Coordinator must have an appreciation of the problems associated with such operations and of potential solutions to those problems.
o The SAR MISSION COORDINATOR (see chapter 19). It may not be necessary to train to MRO standard all staff who fulfil the SMC role in ‘ordinary’ cases, but enough need extensive MRO coordination training to have an officer ready to take on this very challenging role without delay, and for there to be sufficient reliefs available.
o The ON SCENE COORDINATOR: as discussed in chapter 20, the tasks that can be given to the OSC will depend on his/her training and the resources – communication resources in particular – available to him or her. It is recommended that specific individuals should be trained in the role, alongside the SMC if possible. These individuals should be people likely to be available at the time (ferry masters, for example), or who can be rapidly deployed to the scene. If this level of training is not a practicable possibility, a sliding scale operates. The SMC must delegate tasks as appropriate, based on his or her understanding of what the appointed OSC can do. Ideally the SMC will know the OSC’s capabilities and will be able to delegate appropriately. Failing that, the SMC must judge the OSC’s ability and knowledge as best s/he can at the time.
o The AIRCRAFT COORDINATOR (see chapter 21). This is a specialist role, requiring specialist knowledge of multiple aircraft operations, and should be trained accordingly.
o Designated SAR UNIT COMMANDERS (see chapters 22 & 23). The more these commanders know of the MRO plan the better, but specific training can be limited to an understanding of what their units’ roles are likely to be in an MRO – which, generally speaking, will not be dissimilar to their roles in ‘ordinary’ emergencies – and of the communications and coordination structure overall.
o The ‘SUB-COORDINATORSAND COMMUNICATIONS OR LIAISON OFFICERS discussed in chapters 17, 19 & 20 should be trained in their roles. SAR unit commanders can be pre-selected to receive training in on-scene search coordination, for example. Staff who will be deployed to act in the liaison officer role should be trained in the function – which is to act as a communications link, not a decision-maker – and should familiarise themselves with the places they may be deployed to.
o The SHORESIDE EMERGENCY RESPONSE AUTHORITIES (see chapters 11 & 24 and, as regards deployment of specialist support, 15). Coordinators of the shoreside response, at the tactical and strategic levels, should have extensive training in major incident response. As regards a maritime MRO, they should have an understanding of how the maritime part of the operation will be coordinated (at the sea / land interface in particular), the overall coordination and communications structure, and the particular challenges inherent in maritime SAR.
o Where SPECIALIST SUPPORT is to be deployed – firefighting, medical or damage control teams, for example – specific formal training in these roles is essential. This should include an understanding of the overall coordination and communications structure.
o The COMMANDERS OF SHORESIDE RESPONSE UNITS, like those of designated SAR units, should understand their units’ roles and, again, the coordination and communications structure overall.
o The COMMANDERS OFADDITIONAL FACILITIES’ such as ships at or near the scene of the incident will only have had very general, and possibly very limited, SAR training. Their ‘training’ in an MRO is likely to be limited to being told at the time that there is a plan and what their own particular part in it will be.
o The COMMANDERS and OPERATORS of potential casualty vessels, aircraft, offshore installations, etc. As discussed in chapter 5, these people should be included in the planning if practicable, so that they will have an understanding of the support available to them and the way it will be organised. Operators with emergency response plans of their own will need to understand how their plans interlink with others’.


6.3 An MRO is a complex matter. It is more likely to be successful if individual responders understand the ‘big picture’ and their own place within it. Everyone should be able to ‘own’ the MRO plan (see chapter 2), and this implies a measure of training.

6.4 But the training given requires careful and appropriate targeting. Not everyone needs to be trained in everything, and few organisations will have the resource to conduct extensive training beyond the ‘need to know’ basis. Training needs should be carefully analysed. Some people will need quite extensive formal training, suitably refreshed at intervals, for MROs are rare and individuals will not have many opportunities to practice their skills (although see also chapter 28, on exercises). Most potential responders, however, need only be generally familiar with the plan as a whole.

6.5 To the accountant who asks why money should be spent at all on training for something that is unlikely to happen, the answer is: ‘Precisely!’ It is just because MROs are rare that specific training, to the necessary levels, is required. MROs are, by definition, not something that anyone learns about as a matter of routine. (The issue of funding is discussed further in chapter 16.)

7 Joint Training

7.1 One of the challenges faced in an MRO is the fact that responders are likely to be working with people and organisations with whom they are unfamiliar, not having come across them in their usual work. They will be ‘working with strangers’ as IMO’s MSC Circular 1186 puts it.

7.2 There are considerable benefits to be achieved in training together, on a multi-agency basis, especially for those people who may be interacting directly when an MRO occurs. (The same principle applies in exercises conducted primarily for training purposes: see chapter 28.) This may be limited to those identified above who need formal training, but all interaction at the training and exercising levels will pay dividends if it becomes necessary to put the MRO plan into action. As discussed above, familiarisation exchanges, although less formal, are also very beneficial, particularly for those who will be in a communications or liaison role in an MRO.

7.3 Particular attention should be given to the training needs of resources identified as means of filling the ‘capability gap’ (see chapter 4). As discussed in chapter 13, some potential additional SAR facilities can be identified beforehand: ships that trade in a particular area, for example. Seminars and familiarisation exchanges will help build such units into the response team. (Officers pre-selected for OSC work should have rather more formal training, as discussed above.)

7.4 Similarly, when it is agreed that resources can be shared regionally in the event of an MRO (see chapter 14), some training on how this agreement is to be implemented will be required.

7.5 Formal training is essential for the deployment of specialist resources to support the casualty unit so that evacuation can be facilitated or avoided, and/or to support survivors on scene or during their transfer to places of safety (see chapter 15).

8 Summary

Training is an essential part of the ‘plan, train, test, review’ cycle of continuous improvement.
Expenditure on MRO training is justified by the high-consequence nature of such events.
An MRO is more likely to be successful if individual responders understand the ‘big picture’ and their own place within it – but only a relatively few individuals will need extensive training. For most a knowledge of their place in the plan will be sufficient. The training given requires careful and appropriate targeting.
The IMO guidance on training, particularly in the IAMSAR Manual and MSC Circular 1186, should be considered, together with the list of responders discussed in this chapter.
Checklists can be useful, but care should be taken to ensure that they are not unduly restrictive.
The SAR Coordinator is responsible for ensuring that necessary MRO training is arranged, and the relevant SAR managers are responsible for ensuring that it is carried out. Individual trainees also have responsibilities: to learn and apply their learning.
Successful interaction and mutual understanding between those who will have to work closely together during a major emergency are of fundamental importance to its being handled successfully.
Familiarisation visits and exchanges of personnel during exercises are recommended, and there are considerable benefits to be achieved in training together, on a multi-agency basis, especially for those people who may be interacting directly when an MRO occurs.

9 Further Reading

9.1 The IAMSAR Manual provides advice on SAR training, in particular Volume I Chapter 3; Volume II Chapter 1.2.2, 1.8.1-3 & 1.8.12-16; and Volume III Section 23. The IMO also offer Model Courses, including on SAR Administration, Mission Coordination, and On-Scene Coordination.

9.2 IMO’s MSC Circular 1186 sets out guidelines on the training of SAR service personnel working in major incidents; and the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers provides the standard for seafarer training.